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The New Christy Minstrels to perform in Livermore tonight

Folk group favorites coming to Bankhead Theater

The New Christy Minstrels will be performing at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore at 7:30 p.m. tonight.

Baby boomers may remember this group from the early 1960s, when it climbed the charts with the haunting melody and refrain of "Today" as well as the toe-tapping "Green Green." The folk group also brought Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" to fame.

Randy Sparks, who grew up in Oakland and attended UC Berkeley, launched The New Christy Minstrels in 1961 he created the name, hired the performers, wrote the music and produced the recordings.

"This story begins with Stephen Foster, the songwriter," Sparks explained on the group's website.

Sparks discovered while reading about Foster (1826-64), who has been called "the father of American music," that they shared a common problem.

"He had written a pile of good songs that nobody wanted, and his solution was brilliant," Sparks related. "He leaned on the most popular musical group of his era, Christy's Minstrels, later dubbed The Christy Minstrels, to get his ditties heard by the public, and my light-bulb moment came along as soon as I connected the dots from his winning formula to my troubled career. I would call my group The New Christy Minstrels."

Sparks envisioned a troupe with as many as 14 members, with each performing solos, playing, singing, dancing and doing humorous sketches, then joining together for rousing choruses.

"My dream group would have the brash, imperfect excitement of the Kingston Trio, but with enough good singers to rival the Norman Luboff Choir," Sparks recalled. "It worked."

It worked indeed. In 1963, The New Christy Minstrels were awarded the Top Album Grammy for their first LP. Looking back, fans are struck by the clean-cut good looks of the musicians at that time.

Fast forward 50 years. Sparks, who will turn 81 on July 29, is still in charge and is bringing the newest New Christy Minstrels to the Bankhead Theater in Livermore at 7:30 p.m. this Thursday (July 24). The Minstrels now number seven, a mix of old and new.

"We're still alive, we're still creative and still eager to please, so we make a deal with the audience: We'll do all the old songs you came to hear, if you'll allow just a couple of newer ones," Sparks said.

The group has stayed fluid through the decades, spawning successful careers for many of the musicians. It still has three of its original members.

"For over 50 years, we have been the best talent show ever," Sparks said. "We still are."

The New Christy Minstrels were honored with the 318th Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars in January 2009.

Their latest CD, released last July, is titled "Nice Time to Be Alive." The old hits are also for sale on a CD called "Recycled."

After Thursday's show, the singers will be signing autographs in the lobby, Sparks said, because they like to meet their fans and thank them for their support.

Tickets are $42-$59; visit Livermore Performing Arts, call 373-6800, or go to the box office at 2400 First St. in Livermore.

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